Say Cheese! On Instamatic Education and the "snapshot" of student achievement

 Data-driven administrators tell us this "snapshot" doesn't tell us the whole story.
Then they put that snapshot in a big frame and mount it on the wall. 
I just wish they spent as much time polishing the apple as they do the frame. 

image source
"Data-driven" administrators like to talk around the problems we immediately encounter when assessing the results of standardized tests by assuring us that the tests provide just one "snapshot" of a single day, a single test, a single score, "one of many ways we assess our students."  And yet even as they acknowledge the flaws in both the data itself and the tests they administer, they continue to privilege this useless data, using it to inform their decision-making, to justify the "school report cards" that say so very little about our schools, and to measure both student progress and teacher performance.

They tell us the standardized tests provide a "snapshot".  What they don't tell us is that the camera used to take this picture is obsolete. It can't zoom in or focus.  It doesn't have a built-in flash.  It has no personalized features that recognize variations among the subjects it photographs. The film is so old they have to send it out of state for special-order processing. They know it's the worst camera they have (and they've known this for years), but it's the one that's easiest to use, and it gives near-instant results.

"Data-driven" administrators tell us that standardized tests provide a "snapshot" of our child's performance, and assure us that that snapshot is just one of many they take throughout the day.  Then they put that snapshot in a big frame and mount it on the wall.

Perhaps it's time for more parents - and educators - to stand up and say "no thanks" to this particular school picture day.

Instamatic Education:
Not giving us a very accurate picture of student achievement.

If you're in the Madison area, join us on Nov. 6 to discuss Reign of Error at the Sun Prairie Public Library (with special guests Ruth Conniff, editor of the Progressive and Tim Slekar, Dean of the School of Education, Edgewood College) and on Nov. 14 at the Orpheum Theater on State Street in Madison to see Diane Ravitch live and in person, discussing her book.  Connect with local education advocates and activists and learn why it matters that you get involved.  Details here.

"Listen" documentary challenges the push toward more and more testing.

On Quinoa, Food Stamps, and "Those People" (Who Teach Your Kids) #CEW2013

This is a post that I've been trying not to write since I started this blog, because everyone hates sob stories and I'd rather use this forum to talk about issues than my own experience unless they're directly related to education.  But there's something very pointed in the timing, as I find myself sniffling over "Those People" - a really wonderful, eye-opening piece by Jennifer Ball at about the unfortunate assumptions some people make about other people, and how quickly and easily lines are drawn between "us" and "them" when it comes to having, and having not - at the start of Campus Equity Week, which runs from Oct. 28-Nov. 2, 2013.  Campus Equity Week is about drawing attention to fact that all over America, the majority of college classes are being taught by adjuncts, part-time instructors who get paid very little to do very much of the work. This system dis-serves all faculty, and all students, and has created a climate of job insecurity so severe that many adjuncts find themselves relying on public assistance to make ends meet. 

I found myself crying when I read "Those People".  It's a real tear-jerker, in which a woman callously dismisses the quinoa in a food-collection bin for a "Scare Hunger" drive, remarking that "those people" won't know what to do with it.  Implying that "those people" don't deserve something so "fancy."   

And I found myself thinking:  I'm totally one of "those people."  I know exactly what it's like to think of a hearty, healthy, trendy food like quinoa as an extravagance. I know exactly what it's like to squirm through the humiliation of paying with food stamps, and want to scream "You don't know anything about me!  I am a dedicated, hardworking person!  I've never not had a job! I have an advanced degree! I teach at two colleges!" And I figured it was time to write this post.

Because I have been on the receiving end of this contempt.  For me, it was when I was using my FoodShare card to purchase my groceries, mainly fruits and veggies and other staple items for our family - whole grain bread and flour, wheat germ, flax seed, natural peanut butter, eggs, milk, cheese, beans...stuff anyone gets, right?  Stuff that makes your kids full, and healthy. Ingredients.  I'm a mindful shopper, and a really cheap one, who rarely buys anything that's not on sale or something I have a good coupon for - with or without my FoodShare card.

Anyway, on this particular day a few years ago it was the beginning of the month, so I had more groceries than usual but I still didn't have a ton of money on the card.  We received about $150 for a month for our family of four  (I know, I know, you're all thinking "where's the caviar?") - but it was pretty much our whole grocery budget for the month and I needed the basics.  If you like math, that comes out to about $1.34 per person per day.  So I don't think I was really in a "go nuts" situation here.  A lady behind me in the check-out line was eying my cart the whole time, like some ladies behind you do.  Which is annoying even when you're paying in gold bars, I would imagine.  But when she saw me pull out my tell-tale green EBT card, she muttered to her mopey husband: "Food stamps. Did you see that? Flax seed?!"  Never mind my wad of coupons. Never mind that my two young kids were standing right there, listening.  Never mind that at the time I had three academic jobs and had been paying into the system that was helping me through these hard times for the past 20+ years.  Flax seed was a luxury item to this woman, and one that should never pass through the undeserving lips of the three people standing before her.
Are you one of them?

People in this situation know exactly what I'm talking about. It doesn't matter if, like us, you don't buy a lot of junk food or unhealthy stuff.  There's always someone spying into your cart, spying into your wallet, spying into your life to find reasons to believe you don't deserve a "handout."  Looking into your cart for anything that might fall outside of the mental checklist people seem to have of what foods people using FoodShare "deserve."  Looking at your clothes to measure up if you're really poor enough by their standards.  Often it's the clerk ringing you up, or the person doing the bagging.  Or the other customers.  I find myself trying to scope out the "nice" clerks in the checkout lines.  I find myself trying to sneak into lanes so I can be the last person before someone goes on break, so no one will be in line behind me. I find myself compelled to start this paragraph with a justification of my eating habits, and to assure you that I clip coupons.

I'm a full-time graduate student and a college English teacher. A coupon-clipping, FoodShare-receiving college English teacher. At one point several years ago, when my husband was looking for work, and we were on both FoodShare and BadgerCare, I was working three respectable, professional, and relatively-prestigious academic state jobs.  Teaching African literature, as an adjunct lecturer, at UW-Madison; and teaching intro English classes part-time at Madison College (MATC), the local community/tech college.  And doing odd hourly work on campus to make whatever extra money I could.  My real full-time job is supposed to be writing my dissertation, but in the semesters when my appointments don't cover my expenses, I found myself mainly working largely on jobs I love that pay little, require much, and hopefully will one day lead to job security and one full-time teaching position.  Like many adjunct and grad students, I found myself in a situation where I was trying to cobble together a living wage out of multiple part-time appointments, and not even coming close, even after my workload went well over 60 hours a week.

While adjuncts now teach 76% of all college classes, adjunct life doesn't pay. Adjuncts are required to have the exact same credentials as any other college teacher, but they make a fraction of what full-time instructors make for teaching the exact same classes - without benefits, job security, or in some cases even office space.  When you factor in prep time, grading time, student conferences, communications, etc, the $2000-$4000 most adjuncts get paid per class often calculates to a lower-than-minumum-wage rate of hourly pay, especially for grading-intensive courses which require lengthy comments on student work.  Sarah Kendzior best sums up this scenario by calling it like it is: adjuncts are "academia's indentured servants" - a "dispensable" labor force that is nonetheless totally indispensable to the university or college.  Many academic professionals with advanced degrees and grad students are in this boat, working multiple jobs - none of which offer affordable benefits or pay a living wage, and more and more routinely depending on additional assistance to make ends meet. We continue to take these jobs for various reasons, but mainly because we're working on degrees and they offer flexibility while we're still full-time students, or because they give us the teaching experience we need to stay connected to academic communities as we apply for highly competitive full-time positions wherever they're available.  When you're a teacher, you teach.  That's what we're qualified to do; that's what we want to do.  I just always thought it would pay more than a job at McDonald's.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin (and everywhere), the one protection we have in the fight for job security - our unions - are continually threatened, even as the social safety nets like FoodShare and BadgerCare are being further limited and defunded.  Still reeling from heartless and unnecessary cuts to BadgerCare and SeniorCare in his first biennial budget, Gov. Scott Walker's refusal of federal healthcare funds means Wisconsin taxpayers will pick up an even bigger tab, while even more people are kicked out of the program.  One Wisconsin legislator, Senator Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), best known for his legendary misogyny, has led the charge to both restrict eligibility and limit the foods one can purchase with FoodShare funds, constantly appealing to his belief that people on food stamps eat "more generously" than others (carts full of "brand name" foods and steaks and lobsters is his favorite anecdotal example).  In one of his "Family Reports," he lamented that "we cannot continue to let the single mother buy food that the married clerk at the food store cannot afford."  Yeah. He's that kind of guy.  He blames single moms for pretty much everything - including child abuse.  Never mind that she probably works at the food store, too, and there's a good chance that both of them receive food assistance.  Anyway, he summed up the opinion he shares with Scott Walker about anyone receiving government assistance of any kind very succinctly in a recent press release:
The real damage is to the moral fiber of the nation.  As people choose to live off the government, they waste their lives.  Perhaps they do drugs or commit crimes.  They certainly are a bad role model for any children they know. 
Yes, he said that.  In his own press release.  Go back.  Read it again.  Think of me this time, the college teacher with two little kids at the grocery store, using her FoodShare card.  Think of how I'm "wasting my life" trying to get a PhD and how I'm "certainly a bad role model" for my kids.  Ask yourself: "Does she also do drugs or commit crimes?" Think of the other people you see using food stamps at the store.  Think of how little you know about their lives, their stories, their skills, their jobs, their situations.  Think about what assumptions you have about the poor and what they deserve.

Both Grothman and Walker are well aware that the vast majority of recipients of state and federal assistance are adults working jobs that don't pay a living wage, children, the elderly, and people who cannot work because they are disabled.  Their willful distortion of  "those people" as those who are "choosing" government dependency over "true independence" (as Walker likes to call it) helps legitimize hateful attitudes toward the (working) poor, pretentious scoffing at the grocery store, and worse. It's an increasingly losing battle, but adjuncts and others invested in organizing to protect their profession and prospects are not giving up the fight.

So this "Those People" piece really hit home for me and compelled me to share this in the hopes that maybe we can finally start demystifying who "those people" are and start talking about solutions to our real problems instead of trying to make it even more difficult for the working poor to move forward.  Maybe one day we call all sit down together over a big plate of government-cheese-quinoa casserole and do something to change this broken, broken system and our own broken assumptions about who deserves what, and why.

I'm happy to say that I wrote long enough to turn my tears into righteous indignation and restore my will to get back to work and keep fighting the system that makes this exploitation of labor possible.

I'm one of "those people."  And I hope to see you in my classroom someday.  Until then, please do me a favor during Campus Equity Week and keep my story - and Jennifer's - in mind.  Maybe it'll make a difference.


Want to learn more about the plight of adjuncts and the academic underclass?  Check out the work being done by groups like these:
  • Campus Equity Week. October 28-Nov. 2, 2013.  Follow the action on twitter at #CEW2013. "Campus Equity Week was started by the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, a grassroots coalition of activists in North America working for contingent faculty: adjunct, part-time, non-tenured, and graduate teaching faculty. We seek to bring greater awareness to the precarious situation for contingent faculty in higher education, organize for action, and build solidarity among our colleagues."
  • The New Faculty Majority offers a wealth of information and action opportunities for adjuncts and those who care about labor equity in higher education.  Join.  Follow.  This group is the group to watch. 
  • The Adjunct Project Tracks wages and working conditions of adjuncts around the country.  
  • Con Job: Stories of Adjunct Labor.  A new documentary produced and directed by Megan Fulwiler and Jennifer Marlow.  Great interview here. Watch more on vimeo: Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor from Con Job on Vimeo.
  • MLA Subconference on the "Vulnerable Times" of precarious adjunct and grad student labor, student debt & academic/intellectual autonomy and action. Jan. 8-9, 2014, Chicago.
And since I'm an English teacher at heart and by trade, I'll leave you with some literary moralizing from George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and my favorite musical, My Fair Lady.  Adjuncts united, with Alfred P. Doolittle, joining the ranks of "the undeserving poor" but stuck, terribly, at the very same time, in the clutches of "middle class morality."  "That's the tragedy of it, Eliza. ...We're all intimidated.  Bought up."

Join Diane Ravitch & the movement to save our schools

Update (11/11/13): 
The Nov. 14th event with Diane Ravitch has been cancelled due to illness.
Organizers hope to reschedule the event for the spring,
which gives us plenty of time to read the book! - hdb

From our friends at the Sun Prairie Action Resource Coalition (SPARC):

How is public education under attack”?
What can we do about it?

Join Progressive Partners and Diane Ravitch
to understand what’s going on with public education and
discuss what you can do locally address these important questions
Diane Ravich will be in Madison on Nov. 14
Join us on Wed. Nov. 6 at the Sun Prairie Public Library (1350 Linnerud Dr.) at 6:30pm for a community book group discussion with Ruth Conniff of Public School Shakedown and The Progressive Magazine and Tim Slekar, Dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College.  FREE and open to the public!  NOTE: Diane Ravitch will not be at the Nov. 6 event, which is organized in conjunction with her visit to Madison on Nov. 14.

Then join us again on Thurs. Nov. 14 at the Orpheum Theater in Madison for the main event - a public talk on Reign of Error with public education champion Diane Ravitch.  More info on the event facebook page!

Click here for all you need to know about the Diane Ravitch talk, the companion book discussion at the Sun Prairie Public Library, and an opportunity for grassroots networking at the main event! 

Nov. 14 public lecture event details: 
Grassroots networking hour: 6:30-7:30
Diane Ravitch address: 7:30pm

Suggested donation $5-$10. Tickets available at the Progressive, Edgewood, MTI, and same day at the Orpheum.
These events are being organized by Public School Shakedown of The Progressive Magazine and Edgewood College’s School of Education. The event is cosponsored by Madison Teachers, Inc.; Midwest Family Broadcasting; WEAC; and area grassroots organizations including SPARC and our Progressive Partners. 

Please join us for these important and necessary conversations about the future of public education from national and local perspectives.  

These events are about getting the facts on what's going on with public education at the national and local levels, and getting our communities involved and inspired to ACT.

Please share widely and plan to join us!

Follow SPARC on facebook and @PrairieAction on twitter, and contact with any questions about the library event!

Penzeys moves FORWARD with gift - and message - to Mukwonago

Penzeys Spices has just won my official award for Best Company Ever.

Bill Penzey just sent gift boxes of their "Kind" spice box to people in Mukwonago area school district with a 3-page letter detailing why it matters to all of us that they change their mascot from "the Indians".   "America has its special place among nations for what we have done right," the letter says, and because "we are also capable of admitting when we get things wrong." 
"You can't forgive something that is still happening," writes Bill. "We've caused too much pain here.  As long as the stereotypes we create attempt to justify the way their ancestors were treated, the protests won't stop.  As a father myself I have to agree that as long as the caricatures we create work to deny their children the same access to opportunity our children enjoy, their protests really shouldn't stop."

"There's much to be said for, in a moment of kindness, choosing the path of happiness and putting all the hurt behind us.  All kinds of ancestors would smile down upon us.  Either way, enjoy these seasonings.  You were there when I needed you and you are a big part of what we have become.  The least I can do is pass along some good spices.  Enjoy."

The box also includes a $10 voucher for the store, a "KIND" pin and contact info for legislators and the school board for citizens so inclined to spread the message of the need for kindness to all. The KIND box includes several of their signature mixes, including "Forward!," a spice that honors teachers.

I could not be more touched or impressed with this beautiful gesture and think Penzeys is a model for what responsible civic action can mean to building community and connecting business to the issues that make our society civil, decent, and whole.

Bravo, Bill Penzey.  You'd already earned my business with your great product.  Today you earned my deepest respect.

And, for one, I will pay forward the kindness by continuing to speak out against SB 317 and any other measures that attempt to institutionalize hurtful stereotypes that move us backward. 

FORWARD.  Best spice ever.

Wisconsin Schools Are Being Sold (out)...and it's up to you to say "They're not for sale!"

Wisconsin Senate to hold hearing Oct. 9 on
Racist Mascot Preservation Bill,
Sale of Public Schools to Private Ones

5 October 2013
Dear friends of public education in Wisconsin,

If the record-breaking cuts to public education, ALEC-driven policy agenda, and massive expansion of the private voucher program weren't enough to convince you of just how insidious the Walker administration's plan to undermine public education is, perhaps some of the bills on the table in this session will finally get more people seeing the light and speaking out.

There has never been a more critical time in America to pay attention to the big-money forces behind these legislative efforts to defund public education and move toward increased public funding for private schools and obliteration of local control over decision-making on education issues.   The time to be vigilant is NOW and there are three ways we can best do this:
  1. Stay informed.  In Wisconsin, the best way to do this is shaping up to be by following the excellent work going into reporting on state and national threats to public education at Public School Shakedown, the new website launched by Ruth Conniff as her first official act as editor of The Progressive.  Other great resources:
  2. Stay involved, legislatively.  Know what bills are coming up and what they'll mean (see #1), and then SPEAK OUT. Attend hearings or submit written testimony if you can, and, if you can't, call and write your legislators, cc'ing the relevant committee members, and the governor and, when relevant, Tony Evers (the Superintendent of Public Instruction) and your own school board members.  All of these parties should be connected; they all work for you and they should all be aware of your concerns.
  3. Stay involved, locally.  Follow school board agendas, which are by law posted in advance of every meeting, and attend any meetings where a topic of interest is listed. Write to your school board members and district administrators with any questions or concerns you have.  Ask them how, specifically, policy changes will affect your district. Ask them if they support or oppose specific bills, and encourage them to take a public stance when there is consensus. It is their job to answer your questions and it is their job to advocate for the schools in your community.  It is your job to elect responsible people to these positions and to let them know they have your support in standing up strong for fully funded, high-quality public schools.  It's also your job to share this information with your friends and families to help make sure the cycle of information and action is repeated and the consequences of these policies are fully understood.  
Like it or not, this is our obligation.  We cannot count on the press to do this for us, and we cannot count on the legislators who have so shamefully been sold to the very profiteers who have long been scheming to see this legislation enacted do the right thing. 

As Rebecca Kemble has faithfully reported (and if she didn't, who would?!), several failed bills of the last legislative sessions are back, couched now in more carefully deceptive language to limit public and professional kickback as much as possible. The charter expansion bill, SB 76, in particular, was amended a day before the public hearing to include a blatant power-grab. Despite the amendment's late-hour delivery to the public, its corporate stakeholders (who likely drafted the legislation) were very clearly long-prepared to address the issue at the hearing, and promoted their self-serving agenda in no uncertain terms:
"The most disturbing element of the hearing was the aggressive confidence of charter school and chamber of commerce lobbyists representing both state and national groups, as if their domination of public education policy and budgets were a foregone conclusion. They quoted statistics drummed up inside their own school reform echo chambers about how low Wisconsin ranks on national charter-school friendliness indices, and bemoaned the bureaucratic obstacles posed by the democratic public processes required of local school boards.

"Several lobbyists argued that charter schools run by local school districts should be called something else, like magnet schools, since they were under the influence of the inefficient, status quo-supporting school district bureaucracies. In their view, the term “charter school” should be reserved for private schools that receive taxpayer money but are not accountable to democratically elected local school boards."
From our friend Worley Dervish:
"The children of Wisconsin don't need a two-tiered education system.
Public funds should not be used for private schools."
Press release from WI state senator Kathleen Vinehout (PDF):
Notably absent from this conversation were the public school advocates who had been hoodwinked by the misleading language of the original bill and were unaware of the amendment (and it's worth taking a look at the Wisconsin Association of School Board's immediate response).  It's absolutely critical that we speak out (see above) on this bill.  The press is useless in this regard (exhibit A: the Wisconsin State Journal's predictable Chris Rickert couldn't even be troubled to mention SB76, much less google the definition of "local control" in today's dangerously irresponsible piece on the issue of expanding charter authorization powers).  

The administration is hoping we're distracted by the spectacle that is their Tea Party posturing over whether or not to adopt the Common Core State Standards we've already adopted - a move made clear by their decision to hold the SB76 hearing at the same time as three other education hearings, including the one on the standards that drew an overflow crowd. 

This is an important topic of conversation, but don't be distracted by their hypocritical appeal there to "local control."  Every other bill on their agenda takes power away from local electors and ties districts' hands and budgets.

Our only hope is to continue to read, share and write/call our legislators, and keep spreading the word.

It starts with us. And it starts today.  

So here's what's going on this week (full legislative calendar here):

PUBLIC HEARING: Wednesday, October 9 at 9:30 am in 411 South  on several important bills:

SB 318: Sale of Public School Buildings to Private Schools. According to Rebecca Kemble, this bill "Makes it easier for religious, charter and private schools to buy Milwaukee Public School buildings." 

SB 317: The Racist Mascot Preservation Act - consolidates decision-making power at the DOJ and revokes DPI authority; puts burden of proof in proving racism on its victims rather than the districts themselves (now, districts have to prove their mascots aren't offensive; under this law, those with concerns have to come to Madison to prove that they are - an impossible burden that the bills supporters openly admit is just a ploy to ensure no districts will be forced to change their mascots).

+ other items not related to education area also on the agenda, which you can see here: 

Contact info for this committee (be sure to cc the Governor, who will ultimately have the power to stop this dangerous legislation):,,,,,,,

AT THE SAME TIME, on Wed. Oct 9,  in a different room (415 NW), the Assembly Workforce Development committee will be holding a public hearing on a Technical College Grant Bill, AB 399: Relating to: career and technical education incentive grants and making an appropriation. "Under the bill, the Department of Public Instruction (department) must annually confer with the Department of Workforce Development and the Wisconsin Technical College System to identify industries and occupations that face workforce shortages or shortages of adequately trained, entry-level workers."  Which sounds pretty good, right?  Jobs might eventually come of this?  Until you follow the money.   The myth of the "skills gap" has been a persistent ploy of the Walker administration to funnel tax money directly to crony industry partners under the guise of addressing undemonstrated "worker shortages" and the "problem" of un- or under-skilled workers, a convenient mechanism for blaming the workers - rather than his own failed jobs policies - for high unemployment rates.  It's also a way to coerce DPI into forcing industry-specific trades on high school (and younger) students and opens the doors even wider to farming low-wage workers directly out of our classrooms. Not every student is college material.  But all students should have a choice on which direction their education will take them.  This bill puts that decision in the hands of the Dept. of Workforce Development and Scott Walker's cronies.  And we all know that the history of such moves have led to one abuse of power after another and a whole slew of criminal crony activity.

Don't like what you're reading?  Good news: you can do something about it.  [See above, steps # 1-3]. 

Here's to staying informed and involved, and moving forward.

Your partner in action and dissent,

Learn all about how big money turns into bad policy for public schools at

P.S. Special thanks to Rebecca Kemble for her persistence and vigilance in informing us all about upcoming hearings and legislative action, and for her spot-on analyses of what's really going on at the statehouse.  If there's an award for this (and I think there is), she should get it.